So far in this series of music criticism posts, I’ve stuck to composers and songwriters working in a relatively simple format – pop, metal, mainstream progressive rock, etc. Rush and Frank Zappa are certainly adventurous by comparison with Katatonia and Katy Perry, but not compared to a band like Steely Dan.
To veer a bit into that adventurous realm, and speaking of The Dan, today I’m tackling Donald Fagen’s new single I’m Not The Same Without You. The release of a new Fagen or Steely Dan album isn’t as great a cause for rejoicing for me as it is when a band like Rush releases new material, but it deserves a nod, since a good slice of my early years as a guitarist and composer were spent with that Dan sound drenching my ears.
There’s no denying that Fagen is a master of every basic element of pop-rock-jazz songwriting, especially harmony. I chalk this up to his ability as a pianist. Pretty much every great pop songwriter prior to 1960 was trained on the instrument. I remember in college my theory teacher exhorting me to write my exercises – and my creative stuff, too – on the piano, not my more comfortable guitar. The argument goes – its just easier to visualize chords, and alter chords in an intelligent and intuitive way.
Writing straight-up jazz progressions like Fagen does is immensely easier on the piano. That said, his trademark moderate approach to jazz harmony is in display in I’m Not The Same Without You, namely the interspersing and juxtapositioning of simpler triads (e.g. A Major, D minor) with the complex extended and chromatically altered harmonies (e.g. B-flat Major 7th w/raised 4th). I really believe that Fagen’s reputation as a jazz-pop artist rests with this very subtle technique that grounds listeners in the simpler harmonies during important parts of most bars, but provides spice in the transitions. Full-on jazz-rock fusion composers feel no fetters in this regard and routinely pile on dissonant and barely-related chord changes, one after the other.
I’ve remarked before on swing and how awesome and unusual it is to hear put over really well in a pop/rock song. But being a jazz musician, Donald Fagen is nothing if not swinging. But he is extra unusual in his ability to bounce – which is my own made-up term for a more aggressive swing than the normal “rounded eighth-note” swing you hear in most jazz. I’m Not The Same Without You features this taut, almost angular swing. He achieves this technically by swinging not the eighth notes, but the sixteenth notes. That is, the swing is occurring twice as fast as the beat pulse.